My Temple, My Sanctuary

by Jill Menkes Kushner

From Reform Judaism, Winter 1995
Reprinted With Permission

Temple has become a place to ask questions about God; to think; to wonder; to explore feelings that seem out of place in the everyday world.

My rediscovery of Judaism has been and continues to be much like an archeological expedition, a slow process of uncovering layers of meaning within our tradition. The journey has been largely quiet, undramatic, and internal. I am not a mystic whose soul is divinely captured; I didn’t go to Israel and feel the power of my forebears surrounding me; I have not studied my religion deeply. Nonetheless, each fresh piece of information I find contains promise. And the journey has taken place within the walls of a particular and very special place.

That place is my temple, which has become in all ways a true sanctuary for me. It is a place of spiritual, intellectual, and emotional well-being and creativity — and because of it, my knowledge of and appreciation for the religion I was born into have been expanded in uncounted ways. But let me offer two disclaimers, lest I sound like an advertisement: when I speak of my temple, I know that it is one of many that share the same qualities. And my discovery was unintentional; I simply (and gratefully) stumbled into it.

I had a loving, easy-going childhood, and for a long time in my adulthood I did not know or feel that anything was missing. As a child and young adult I possessed a strong, primarily cultural, identification with Judaism. My parents inculcated a respect for our religion and our ancestors, and I absorbed Jewish values, especially those relating to ethics and educations. But I chose not to go to religious school, and since our synagogue (at that time the only one in town) was Conservative and I didn’t know any Hebrew, I couldn’t actively participate in services.

As a child, I never considered that Judaism might help me answer questions that probed the purpose and meaning of our lives. One evening while my father and I took a walk together, he made a comment that has stayed with me. Showing me the stars, he reminded me that in the context of the wide and glorious universe, we are very small participants. I wondered then (as now) what we are meant to do on this earth — and went on to live, as others do, busily playing, working, and occasionally examining life’s meaning.

When my husband and I started a family, we joined a Reform synagogue in Connecticut for the Hebrew naming of our first child. We clearly felt a need to connect more strongly with our Jewish heritage. The Reform environment was very welcoming, as we didn’t need to pretend to have knowledge we didn’t possess.

In 1983 we moved to New Jersey and inadvertently found the temple that has become a second home to us. We joined simply because the congregation offered a Reform setting and was a few blocks away from our new home, and we wanted to have a naming ritual for our second child. We knew nothing about the clergy or the laypeople. In other words, we were (to use my children’ expression) completely “clueless.”

We joined the temple’s parenting group, attended special services geared for preschoolers, and began making friends. A few years later, our children started religious school and we all went to children’s services together. I became active as a volunteer, chairing a committee that created our temple preschool. The whole family worked on fun events like Purim carnivals and charitable projects that helped Russian emigrĂ©s and homeless folks. The warmth of our temple had enveloped us without our even knowing it. We had found a sense of community and connection.

This experience was fulfilling on a secular level — involving, but emotional and social in nature, and somewhat limited. I knew that I also needed to revisit the larger questions that had lingered in my mind and heart concerning our purpose on the planet.

My real initiation into the more spiritual aspects of Judaism occurred when I lost my 34-year-old brother in a car accident in 1989. Until then, everything had seemed to go smoothly for our family. In that startling moment we discovered that randomness in the universe can topple one’s sense of equilibrium. And, out of an increased need for deeper meaning, we turned again to our temple.

Temple became a place to ask questions about the nature of God; to think; to wonder; to explore thoughts and feelings that seemed out of place in the everyday world. In our fast-paced society, there is little tolerance for grieving, a slow process. We learned about the Yizkor service as a place and time for remembrance. And during Sabbath services and conversations with our clergy, we learned that our temple was a place that allowed us to be ourselves.

In my quest for a well-rounded, examined life, I have found no single answer — only the awareness that every lived moment has potential that is ours to realized. Within the past few years, our family has grown both intellectually and spiritually. I am studying Hebrew vocabulary and grammar; my husband has begun studying Torah chanting. Our son became a bar mitzvah and is now part of the high school evening study program; our daughter is preparing to become a bat mitzvah.

I feel fortunate that my temple offers an environment that welcomes searchers at all levels. When our family first attended services at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel many years ago, several older members of this large (over 800-family) congregation came over to greet us, an uncommon act of human caring that signified a place where people valued extending themselves to others. In my temple, the love of Judaism is joyous and energizing, and Jews are able to nurture their dreams, question their experience, and learn form themselves and others. I am grateful to dwell there.

Jill Menkes Kushner is a member of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, NJ.